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Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: is it still relevant today?

internal comms helps hierarchy of needs

A quick “who” and “what”

Run a quick internet search for “Maslow” or his “hierarchy of needs”, and you’ll no doubt be presented with a simple pyramid infographic. But what does it all mean, and can it still be relevant when this particular thinker died over half a century ago?

In case you’re unaware, by way of a brief summary, Maslow (1908-1970) theorised that human beings are motivated by the needs in their lives (which seems logical!) and that these needs can be organised into five tidy categories, each one only coming into play when the previous one is fulfilled. Through this thinking, Maslow became, and arguably remains as, the founding father of humanistic psychology.

But, back to his hierarchy… Starting with our most fundamental needs for life, we begin with our physiological needs. These include air, food, water, sleep and shelter. All pretty basic but clearly crucial, no matter who or where in the world we are.

Maslow formulated that these need to be fulfilled before we can focus on the next tier. (I can’t argue with that - I struggle to focus on anything when I’m hungry or tired!)

Once we have fulfilled these physiological needs, we will start to focus on our safety needs. Put simply: our irrefutable need to feel safe and secure. As children, this is probably just being physically close to our parents, carers, or favourite teachers. Later in life, these will likely include things like personal security, employment and good health.

Got those sorted? In that case, if Maslow is right, we will start to focus on our need for love and belonging. This includes our family ties, friendships, relationships, romance and the wider sense of connection and belonging. Humans are social animals, after all. (Though I have an ex who challenges that theory!)

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

After that, comes our esteem, including self-esteem, self-respect, and confidence. Interestingly, Maslow claimed that these needs include two components. The first is feeling good about ourselves. The second is feeling valued by others, and feeling that our actions and achievements are being recognised by other people.

And finally, at the top of that often garishly coloured two-dimensional pyramid is something called self-actualisation. This is, in a nutshell, feeling fulfilled and believing that we are the best that we can be. The detail of this is different for everybody, as some of us are fulfilled by being able to help others, some by their creative or artistic pursuits or achievements, some by reaching the top of their chosen field, and some by continued life-long learning, to name but a few.

Maslow was a bit gloomy on this one, theorising that relatively few of us ever achieve self-actualisation. (I’ll let you know when I get there. But I bet the view’s lovely!)

So, to the question in the title? Is all of this still relevant?

Can the theories of a psychologist from New York that were written in 1943 apply to a part-time accounts clerk who’s now working from home on the outskirts of Birmingham in November 2022? Well, yes…

It’s true that there has been some partial debunking of Maslow’s theory in more recent years. Specifically, the linear and ordered route through them has been questioned. For example, is it not possible to feel loved and connected even if you’re struggling with some of those tier-one physiological needs, such as food? (This is a scenario that is becoming heartbreakingly more likely with our current cost of living crisis.)

But what haven’t changed, and are more relevant and important than ever, are those “belonging” and “self-esteem” needs. It’s proven fact that maintaining meaningful social connections is directly related to better mental and physical health. The opposite is also true - feeling isolated (i.e., not meeting these “belonging” needs) impacts negatively on our health and well-being. This is why, particularly with our new ways of working, post-pandemic, a robust internal comms strategy that puts meaningful connectivity, two-way comms and collaboration at the heart of everything is so important.

It’s also perhaps obvious, but still interesting, then, that recognition and feedback can contribute so generously to those same two crucial tiers. Maslow stressed that the need for “belonging” encompasses both feeling loved and feeling love towards others. So telling your peers that you appreciate them, thanking your direct reports or colleagues, praising hard work or kind acts, and shouting about others’ achievements has never been more important for both recipient and sender. That’s why a peer-to-peer recognition platform does double the good!

Personally, I reckon Maslow was on to something. If we’re to avoid losing our top talent to the great resignation, we need to focus on those middle tiers for our people, from their (job) security to their sense of belonging and their esteem. If we can help them to climb the pyramid, the outlook will be better for us all.


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